When I left Australia in September of 2016, I didn’t expect to ever go back.
I’d been invited to deliver the opening address of the Brisbane literary festival. The organisers had originally requested that I speak on the theme of “Community and belonging”; I told them for such a soft, sappy topic they had the wrong speaker. By all means, choose your own subject, they wrote back. I proposed to speak about identity politics in fiction, and received wholehearted approval.
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I chose to focus on a concept I’d only recently encountered, which at the time had primarily been used to castigate adventurous musicians and fashion designers. ‘Cultural appropriation’ was a brand new taboo: ‘stealing’ from other people’s traditions for your own evil creative purposes without ‘permission’. Although it was baffling however one might go about securing such a licence.
In 2016, I was hard-pressed to come up with examples of this peculiar no-no being used to impugn works of fiction. But I did manage to dig up the fact that a white male British novelist had recently been chided in reviews and on social media for daring to employ a female Nigerian character. I worried that if this sort of rebuke spread, the new taboo could be catastrophic for my occupation, one wholly dependent on imagining what it’s like to be someone else.
Alas, only three years later, I’d have found copious examples of fiction writers who’ve had their knuckles rapped for helping themselves to what didn’t belong to them.
Before delivering that lecture, I’d been solely concerned that my thesis was so self-evident that the speech would be boring. Afterwards, I was informed that one audience member, a 24-year-old from Southern Sudan, had flounced down the middle aisle and out of the venue – to be followed, after several minutes, by her concerned mother.
The young woman — who has dined out on her rude exit ever since — promptly posted an indignant screed online about how deeply hurt and offended she was by my talk (much of which she did not hear). Said screed was so over-written that it was actually funny. Nevertheless, the Guardian, which has an increasingly, shall we say, ambivalent relationship to my politics, picked up the blog and posted it on the paper’s website.
The rest is history.
Media across the world piled on. The story, such as there was one, was widely misreported. One woman walking out, followed five minutes later by her mother, transformed into a mass audience desertion. My final flourish of donning a sombrero – a droll reference to the speech’s intro, and worn only during the last three words of the speech – was mis-described in every account. According to news reports, I’d worn the sombrero belligerently during the entire 45-minute address. Now, that was slanderous. I have a far better sense of theatre.
To set the record straight, I had had my publicist post the keynote’s text online. Meanwhile, the festival administrators informed the press that I had spoken “beyond my brief”, and had no permission to address this topic. When my publisher sent the organisers a copy of the email thread demonstrating that they knew perfectly well what I would speak about and had given the topic their blessing, we got back sorrow about my “hurt” and “pain”. I wasn’t hurt or in pain. I was pissed off. Advertising that I go rogue at the podium impugned my reputation, and potentially curtailed future speaking invitations.
In private, I received a surprising quantity of supportive email, some from friends I didn’t know I had, but most of these defenders didn’t take a public stand. Oh, and that British writer, whose novel I stuck up for? He’s never spoken to me again.
It had been my intention to nip in the bud a poorly thought-out hard-Left injunction that had the capacity, if widely applied, to make my occupation untenable. Instead I fear that I helped spread the very concept that I’d hoped to discourage. For ‘cultural appropriation’ has in this last three years become widely regarded as forbidden in fiction.
I confess that I’m sick of the subject. Nevertheless, my opposition to this harebrained notion has grown only more implacable.
It took me a while to figure out that the ‘appropriation’ foofaraw is, in part, about the commodification of identity. In those indignant 2016 comment pieces, I encountered outrage that pale-faced authors were making money from experience that wasn’t theirs to sell. Thus the idea must be to reduce supply of writing about ‘marginalised communities’, and thereby to increase demand. Presumably, if we white writers are prevented from using ‘stolen’ material – if we’re required, in the latest lingo, to ‘stay in our lane’ – then, clamouring for fiction about characters from Southern Sudan, the minority-starved reading public will turn the recent first novel of a certain huffy African-Australian activist into a bestseller. I fear this model displays a poor understanding of economics and publishing both.
In literature, too, ideological predation on established writers is intended to allow younger, woker folks to take their place. When I was coming of age, we younger writers were eager to find mentors whom we admired, and with whom we often tried to ingratiate ourselves in Master of Fine Arts programs. We inhaled the work of accomplished predecessors, the better to hone our own skills.
We now have a generation that simply ‘cancels’ the older generation, the better to clear the stage and clamber onto it. (None of these people read anymore, but mysteriously they all still want to be writers.) What I encountered in Brisbane hewed to an ugly behavioural model that has more in common with big game hunting than with art.
More fundamentally, I challenge the propositions that any of us ‘own’ our own culture, that a culture is even subject to strict definition, and that a culture has any borders that can therefore be rigidly policed. Because we are all elements in other people’s landscapes, our experience – how we act, what we say, what traditions we observe – is also an ingredient in other people’s experience. Thus I would submit: we do not even own exclusive title to ourselves.
I reject this hoarding, hostile, selfish, and perplexingly commercial relationship to ‘identity’. Better that we all conduct our work and social lives in a spirit of sharing, generosity, exploration, curiosity, experimentation, and even willingness to fail in our sincere efforts to understand one another.
But apparently we white writers are now on notice that we don’t have “permission” to write non-white characters. There was actually a headline I tripped over online during the Brisbane hullabaloo, atop an article I didn’t choose to read: “Lionel Shriver Should not Write Minority Characters” – just in case I hadn’t got the message loudly and clearly enough. Ironically, this implies that authors like me are obliged to portray the Western world as if it’s still the 1950s. Off the page, our countries may grow ever more ‘diverse’, but between book covers we’re back to apartheid.
The strictures now constraining the imaginations of fiction writers are not limited to a ban on cultural kleptomania. All artists today are encouraged to be political, but only in the service of a narrow hard-Left orthodoxy. Any novel that challenges the trans movement or the 100% socially and economically beneficial character of today’s mass immigration to the West will attract a Twitter mob and scathing reviews. And that’s assuming you could get such books published in the first place.
Cutting-edge artists were once famously ‘transgressive’. Now to be cutting edge is to be cookie-cutter. Despite the reputation of the artist as a maverick, I live in a world of conformity. I don’t personally know a single fiction writer in London who supports Brexit.
You know, even having characters voice views or behave in a manner that runs contrary to progressive mores is now dangerous. At the 2016 Sewanee Writers Conference in Tennessee, fellow authors accused Allen Wier of a “microaggression” because three old men in a baseball park ogled a young woman in his short story.
It’s especially perilous for a novelist to express anything but officially approved progressive opinions in non-fiction – and as a prolific comment writer and columnist, I should know. I should have kept my noxious libertarian views about tax policy, the EU, and affirmative action to myself. I’ve made myself a target of animosity for virtually all the people who can influence my career – who commission the manuscripts, judge the literary prizes, award the writing residencies, and assign the reviews. For politically, my professional milieu is almost perfectly homogeneous. In outing myself in journalism, I’ve branded myself an outsider, if not an exile, among my own kind.
Hence I now get a brand of review I’ve come to recognise —whose author pre-hated me, and read my novel only with a view to locating unforgivable sins against social justice.
A friend of mine who teaches criticism at Columbia’s Master of Fine Arts program in New York confirmed that this recent inclination to judge literature in accordance with its adherence to a political catechism is not all in my head. Over a glass of white wine last summer, she despaired that all her criticism students think the job of a critic is to assess a given work in accordance with its implicit racial or sexual mores. Her students won’t even cut historical texts any slack if the content doesn’t line up perfectly with contemporary progressive values.
Writing fiction used to be a hoot. Now it’s fraught with anxiety. My colleagues and I have been made destructively self-conscious about any sentence that touches on race, ethnicity, disability, gender, sexual harassment or assault, Israel, colonialism, imperialism, diversity, class, or inequality – and that list keeps getting longer. As a consequence, too many of today’s artists are struggling to be ‘good’ rather than to do ‘well’. Perpetual nervousness that a foot wrong could get you banished from civilisation for life is not conducive to making art at all, much less outstanding art.
Publishers’ practice of employing “sensitivity readers” to vet and censure manuscripts is currently restricted largely to Young Adult fiction, but could soon be coming to a mainstream publisher near you. Self-appointed experts in the delicate feelings of a range of protected special-interest groups supposedly ensure that the text doesn’t offend anyone —although at this point if your book doesn’t offend anyone, it’s probably not worth reading.
After #MeToo, we authors are also fearful about how we behave at parties, which could not only invite personal censure but get our books withdrawn from the shelves. Now that the presumption of innocence is out the window, we have to protect ourselves from both our real sexual lapses and mere accusations of such lapses. Ask Junot Diaz. It took months of ignominy to clear the author’s name after he was accused of planting an unwanted kiss, and meanwhile booksellers banned his work.
Remember when writers like Hemingway were expected to be licentious hell-raisers who drank too much? I’m perfectly capable of batting the odd hand from my knee, so please give me back the old days, when being a novelist was good fun.
What are we all to do? Because this watch-your-step environment is not only a problem for artists. We’re all being coached to use dumb expressions, to edit what we say lest we violate a host of unwritten regulations, and to be increasingly avoidant of people different from ourselves not because we’re bigots but because we might say something wrong.
The hard Left’s code of conduct is drafted by people with no authority. A small group of self-nominated tyrants concocted ‘cultural appropriation’ as an unpardonable transgression, but that doesn’t mean we have to pay any attention to these bullies. The only thing that gives made-up rules any teeth is obeying them.
I’m an old-school rebel. Tell me I can’t do something and my immediate impulse is to do it. I write minority characters. You can only dispense with silly rules by breaking them, and any freedoms that you don’t exercise you’re bound to lose.
This means resisting the all-too-rational protective urge to self-censor. In 1969, Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint outraged American conservatives, and Roth meant the novel to be outrageous. He recognised that artists are supposed to push the confining cultural boundaries of their times. But these days, that means pushing back against the rigid rectitude of the Left.
We can also maintain our senses of humour. The best weapon against people who take themselves too seriously is not to denounce but to make fun of them. They deserve it, and we deserve a good belly laugh at their expense.
It’s also important to come to the defence, publicly and not only in private emails, of artists, academics, journalists, and thinkers who have stuck their necks out only to have their heads chopped off. The august, yet temporarily disgraced philosopher, Roger Scruton, who was crucified by an irresponsible journalist taking his quotes out of context, was only restored to respectability with the assistance of friends and allies who advocated on his behalf.
Otherwise, we just have to weather the storm. This Left-wing mania for dos and don’ts can’t last forever. I fear what may be required is some sort of catastrophe, one that makes ‘microaggressions’ suddenly seem as trivial as the expression suggests. This lunatic authoritarian obsession with an infinitely growing list of rules in relation to an infinitely growing list of specially protected categories of people? It’s an ailment born of prosperity. It’s the ultimate first-world problem. A plague of antibiotic-resistant flesh-eating bacteria across the planet might kill billions of people, but it would also wipe identity politics right off the map. In my desperation to restore sanity, playfulness, mischief, and abandon to our cultural landscape, I just hope I don’t have to resort to disseminating the bacteria myself.
Both artists and arts consumers need to return to first principles. That is, the purpose of art is not to do good. A given novelist may choose to promote the author’s version of virtue, but being good-as-in-virtuous is not what makes a book good-as-in-excellent.
It’s time to return to valuing not only nuance and complexity, but anarchy, wickedness, and heresy. It’s time to stop feeling obliged to be such good little campers, at least in our heads. Both writers and readers need to feel free to explore the unseemly underbelly of our imaginations. After all — aren’t books the ultimate ‘safe space’?
And sometimes we just have to talk about something else — something besides whatever group is socially disadvantaged this week, or what remark some public figure made about race or gender that’s supposedly beyond the pale. Sometimes we authors have to write about something else — so maybe I’m even apologising for the very topic I’m speaking of right now.
Because for me, the biggest trap of this whole identity politics lark has been getting lured into debating a proposition that’s unworthy of my address. I get drawn into fights from which I’d be better off just walking away. I’m genuinely embarrassed to have continually explained what I think is wrong with the concept of ‘cultural appropriation’ for three solid years. It’s a dumb idea, and it’s dumb terminology. Call it ‘cultural appreciation’ and the argument is over. For there’s a way in which, when you spend your precious time on this earth battling something dumb, even if at length you prevail, you’ve nevertheless thrown your pearls before swine, and the morons have still won.
This text is an abridged version of Shriver’s John Bonython Lecture for the Centre for Independent Studies, entitled ‘Creativity in the Age of Constraint’, which she gave in Sydney earlier this month.